Elliott Bristow’s Road Dreams continue...
Following on from his 1989 TV series and the 2007 Retro Road Dreams DVD, Elliott Bristow has now produced a multi-media iBook that presents more extracts from his archive of American images.
Road Dreams: An American Adventure. Available from the iBook Store, for iPad and Mac (running OS Mavericks)
by Ian Ralston, former Director of ASRC
In 1982 Channel 4 began broadcasting as the UK's fourth terrestrial TV channel. It soon developed a reputation as a channel prepared to produce programmes that were both inventive, original, challenging and provocative. This was not only in areas such as popular music with programmes such as The Tube (1982-87), or in science with Equinox (1986-2001), in politics with Black Bag (1991-97) and Dispatches (1997 to date) and eventually in comedy with Father Ted (1995-98), to name but a few, but also in its promotion and the support of British made film. This was to pay dividends in a series of major productions such as The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) thus providing a welcome shot in the arm for the industry. However, it was not just the major film projects that Channel 4 supported: for smaller independents it also provided a welcome boost and stimulus to artists and producers and a vehicle for the broadcasting of their work.
Channel 4 therefore offered opportunities for independent programme makers that again, at that time, was original and clearly showed its commitment to the promotion of the arts in Britain. Whilst many of these did not receive the recognition or critical acclaim they perhaps deserved, many nevertheless made their mark on their audiences, often on a highly personal level.
One of these was Road Dreams, a series of six 30-minute films by Elliott Bristow. Filmed over a 14 year period between 1968 and 1982 and eventually broadcast in 1989, Bristow’s films catalogued, in a highly original manner, his 500,000 mile (800,000 km) wanderings and travels around America. Shot on Super 8mm film, the programmes very quickly established Bristow as a filmmaker of some ingenuity and talent. However, it was not just the stunning images of the rural and urban landscapes, but it was also the filmmaker's eye for the ordinary, everyday, forgotten and on occasions, weird aspects of America, its people and landscapes. He had, to many, followed the mantra of Agee and Evans, in Let us Now Praise Famous Men, of “...ignoring nothing…”
The structure of the programmes was also highly innovative in that there was no overriding verbal narrative. Being shot without formal soundtrack, (and having a visual quality only Super 8 could provide) Bristow presented a visual narrative, open to the viewer to ‘read’ and to set their own meaning. The soundtrack eventually provided on the finished production consisted of readings from writers such as Jack Kerouac (in particular and unsurprisingly, On the Road) and Thomas Wolfe, and an evocative musical soundtrack by musicians such as Leo Kottke, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Rick Wakeman, Francois Godefroy, Rick Loveridge and Richard W Gilks. This provided the series with an intense power and mesmerized a generation, many of whom had spent summer holidays travelling America on Greyhound buses, rental or drop-off cars or by thumb (dangerous though this could be in some states, as well as illegal in others) and listening to rock, country or fundamentalist religious radio stations. Bristow himself gave a minimal verbal narrative, often to seemingly just set a context or provide a gem of understated insight. (One in particular, that firmly stands out to me, is when he says he approached his film diary as a way “...to look at the present as if it were a memory.”) Brief audio snatches from radio stations and phone messages also add an appealing and sometimes bizarre edge.
Criss-crossing America, from north to south, and east to west, Bristow captured both an America of its time and a seemingly timeless panorama. Whilst almost no mention is made of the Vietnam conflict, or the struggles of African Americans, women and others for civil rights, those issues are there in an unspoken background, while the everyday and ordinary is recorded in an evocative manner. But it is not just the historical or physical landscapes that draw the viewer in; the human context sees many faces go by, then return to our view. Although generally unacknowledged, they are seemingly familiar to the viewer and presented in an endearing and often affectionate manner.
Bristow had accumulated enough material during his travels to make a longer film, (Codachrome - a Time of Road Dreams) a project he is still working on, but it was clear that what had become the Road Dreams archive had significant potential to explore and support other forms of production and consequently open up his work to a wider audience. In 2007 Bristow produced a DVD, Retro Road Trips; a compilation of re-edited footage and music based on the original TV series but still retaining all the hallmarks of the six-part series. This again brought his work not only to those who had followed him from the 1990s but also to a new generation.
Extracts from Road Dreams were subsequently used by a number of TV documentaries, including a BBC 4 series on British rock bands in America and for educational purposes, such as a promotional DVD by the British Association for American Studies (BAAS). An accompanying web site Retro Road Trips (http://www.retroroadtrips.com/) provided an extra element to the video and the original series; and one that again embraced the new technology available.
In 2013 Bristow published Road Dreams: an American Adventure. This multi-media book, available now on line through the iBookstore for iPad and Mac, takes not only film clips from the Road Dreams archive, but also a large number of beautifully selected still images, most of which are screen grabs, that capture the essence of the author’s American adventures. Again, it is often the everyday and ordinary that transfix the viewer: road side small town life, desert sunsets and snow storms, abandoned shacks, advertising hoardings, college students, farmers, endless roads and cars, railways, forests and mountains, communities and families and workers, cityscapes, improvised art (isn't it all really?) and the list goes on. The video clips in each chapter have also been re-edited and come with new soundtracks, each one showing (in Bristow’s own words) a time when the world was analogue and the promise seemingly endless.
The book is presented in seven chapters (see below for titles), with chapters two to six exploring different routes or themes Bristow covered over his fourteen years of travels. The written sections of the book do not detract from the images but again, as with the TV series, add to and complement the work whilst not restricting the reader. Consequently, each reader will have their own way of finding meaning from this collection, much as they had the opportunity to do with the original TV series. It is, however, the ability of the still to capture or freeze a moment or memory that, in the words of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, provides photography with, “...the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event….” that is notable.
This was a highly enjoyable, rewarding, evocative and, for me, a somewhat melancholic journey through memories of my own and surely that of many others...but as already indicated, the strength of Bristow’s work is that each reader can discover their own meanings and readings and consequently create their own narrative.
Chapter 1: Details; Viewing; Cars; Introduction.
For those interested in learning more, there are two articles on the ARNet web site well worth viewing. Bristow himself wrote an article for American Studies Today Online in 2008 entitled Road Dreams - a Super 8 American Film Diary 1968-82
There is also an article by ASRC Director Bella Adams; Elliott Bristow Brings Road Dreams to Liverpool. This includes a full audio recording of Bristow’s lecture at Liverpool John Moores University.
Road Dreams: An American Adventure can be found by a link directly on the iBookshop from the Retro Road Dreams home page. Go to http://www.retroroadtrips.com
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